Fans rooting for Stumpy

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Suddenly in the silence of training camp the puck is on Steve Thomas' stick and now there is noise.

The surprising number of fans in attendance at the Ricoh Coliseum chant his nickname. They cheer when he does almost anything. They erupt, as they did yesterday, when his snapshot eludes Ed Belfour for a pretty goal by Team C.

He is a strange symbol of hope, the cause celebre in the early days of camp: Stumpy.

Our Stumpy. Just another one-named hockey player in a town with too many.

Only this one-named player happens to be older than the general manager he must impress, without any kind of job security of his own. He doesn't have a contract. He doesn't have anything guaranteed but his effort. He is here quite simply because he isn't ready to walk away from the National Hockey League and can't envision himself living or playing anywhere else.

The odds, of course, are terribly against a player now small by Leaf standards at 5-foot-11, now old at 42, but then again, the odds have always been against Thomas. He scored 50 goals for the Marlies -- before they died and became the Marlies again -- and nobody bothered to draft him.

That was in 1984, the same year Alexander Steen was born, the year the Leafs invited him to attend training camp with a modest contract, and the first thing he did was get injured.

But within a year, he was a 20-goal-scorer in the NHL. The next year, he scored 35. From there it didn't stop.

So here is the difficulty for Stumpy Thomas, old boy at Leafs camp. The same coach who decided he didn't need him four seasons ago remains the coach today. Some younger Leafs, who clearly don't have his ability, his zest, his passion for the game, have guaranteed deals.

He needs someone to falter -- or some kind of leap of faith by Ferguson and Pat Quinn -- to make the team. His age lies. He can't possibly be that ancient. He can still play in the league. What he won't know, until the end of camp, until the pre-season is over, is whether there is still room for him.

"I'm trying to leave it all out there," said Thomas, hoping to be a Leaf for a third time. In between, he has made two stops in Chicago, one on Long Island, one in New Jersey, one near-Stanley Cup run in Anaheim and one season in Detroit that he hopes won't be his last.

"Right now, all I'm concentrating on is what I have to do," he said. "When I go out there, I have to make a difference. If I can make a difference, I'll get a better look.

"It's nice to hear the people cheer for you. I get a lot of support on the streets, too, when I see people. It makes me feel positive. I didn't come here to be mediocre. I came here to make a difference."

He could have gone to the Red Wings camp. A year ago, before the lockout, he was offered a one-year contract to play for $1 million in Detroit. This time around, with his Anaheim coach Mike Babcock now with the Wings, he was invited to camp without a contract, but with some assurances. In Toronto he was promised nothing.

"My heart's here," said Thomas. "It has always been here." His family is here also. He has no intention of moving. "I'm not leaving them at 13 and 11," he said of his kids. "I've got to be there for them. We're settled here and we're staying here."

And inside of him, there is that part of him, as a Toronto kid who was born six years after the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup, that knows what he wants. He wants one last contract, one more shot.

"It was the chance of a lifetime," he calls his Anaheim run with the Mighty Ducks. "I relished every second of it. Sometimes, when I'm driving in the car, or doing something different, it'll just pop into my head. How close we were."

A chance of a lifetime then, another now. Each day of cheers is precious, each day one step closer to a decision.


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